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“Dead Men’s Path” enacts in miniature one of the central themes of Achebe’s novels—the clash between modern European ideas and traditional African values, progressive international standards and deeply rooted local custom. The story’s protagonist, Michael Obi, is a well-educated forward-thinking idealist with a passion for “modern methods.” Quite intelligent and undoubtedly dedicated to education, Obi is more comfortable in abstract thought than in facing the complexities of real life. He doesn’t notice unspoken feelings; for example, his wife’s considerable disappointment upon learning that the other teachers are all unmarried. His view of the world is rational and therefore incapable of fully understanding the parts of life ruled by emotion, intuition, or custom. Obi looks down on the older headmasters of the Mission schools. Note how Achebe subtly undercuts Obi in the opening paragraphs. Only twenty-six, the newly appointed headmaster appears much older with his “stoop-shouldered” posture and “frail” build.
Michael Obi’s name demonstrates his divided heritage. Michael is a Christian baptismal name of European heritage. (Remember Obi works for “Mission” schools—as did Achebe’s father, who was a devout Christian.) Obi, by contrast, is an African name. His name itself embodies the cultural conflict he is about to enter.
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